How to Write Recommendation Letters that Make a Difference Why Recommendation Letters Matter

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How to Write Recommendation Letters that Make a Difference
Why Recommendation Letters Matter

There is only so much that a college admissions or scholarship selection panel can learn about a student from his/her transcripts, test scores, and lists of activities. Letters of recommendation help reviewers understand a student’s motivations and values and help them distinguish one student from another.

A strong recommendation letter explains:

  • Who the student is beyond his/her grades, test scores and lists of activities

  • How much and in what ways the student likes to learn

  • Which subject areas the student excels in

  • What kind of character the student has

  • The student’s strengths and weaknesses

  • The student’s achievements in activities, hobbies, sports or at work

  • Leadership positions held or special projects led

  • Any contributions the student has made to the school or community

  • If the student has accomplished something that is not easily explained in the other parts of the application

  • Special circumstances that should be taken into account such as challenges faced, the student’s or community’s socio-economic background or limited course offerings at her/his school attended.

Recommendation letters can help emphasize:

Six Tips for Preparing Recommendation Letters

TIP 1: Know Your Objectives.

Before you start writing, be sure you are clear on the type of information the colleges and scholarship organizations are seeking in your letter. For example:

  1. • Is there a specific question you need to answer?

  2. • Is the selection criteria described in the application materials? (Be sure you explain how the student meets the criteria.)

  3. • Are there special circumstances about the student’s socio-economic background or school limitations you would like the selection committee to know?

TIP 2: Create a 60 Second Outline.

Every letter should include the following:

  1. • Name of student: _________________________________________________

  2. • Letter is in support of student’s application for: __________________________


• Academic accomplishment or point to convey: _____________________________

Example: ______________________________________________________________

  1. • Extracurricular accomplishment or point to convey: ______________________

Example: ______________________________________________________________

  1. • Personal accomplishment or point to convey: ___________________________

Example: ______________________________________________________________

  1. • Anything else? ___________________________________________________

This format is flexible. For one student, you may have one academic, one extracurricular, and one personal accomplishment to cover. For another you may want to address two academic points and one personal one.

TIP 3: Build on Your Outline, Strategically.

  1. • Be credible, don’t gush. Selection committees value honesty. They will take more seriously a letter which describes a student with one or two unique qualities, and less seriously, a letter which seems to over-hype the greatness of a supposed superstar.

  1. • Go deep rather than broad. It’s better to use one compelling story that illustrates a rare quality in a student than a list of 20 great facets of an “all around” student.

  2. • Try to highlight one or two special contributions. The college or scholarship selection committee will already have a list of the student’s activities. Writing to illustrate how the student made a difference in an activity or as a member of a club can be helpful, especially if this would not be readily apparent from the other application materials.

  1. • Give vivid examples to describe the student’s qualities. Over-used descriptors like “team player,” “natural leader” or “friendly” don’t offer much to readers without further explanation. Try to illustrate special traits of your student with examples like the following:

To illustrate that a student is “an effective mediator,” you might add:

She has shown the ability to suggest constructive solutions when disagreements come up between other players on the team. For example, when new members joined the team and disagreed with the more senior players about . . . “

To illustrate a student’s leadership skills, you might share a story such as:

Last year, he organized a canned food drive for the homeless. He mobilized volunteers to publicize the drive, collect the canned goods and take them to the homeless shelter. Because of his efforts the drive was a success and resulted in more than 1,000 cans of food. Through this effort, he showed his ability to organize, motivate others and produce results.”

TIP 4: Know Which Traits to Highlight.

Traits worth highlighting (choose one or two):

  • Character

  • Integrity

  • Perseverance

  • Judgment

  • Motivation

  • Inquiring attitude

  • Maturity

  • Ability to accept constructive criticism

  • Creativity

  • Confidence

  • Relationships with classmates and teachers

  • Tenaciousness

  • Compassion for others

  • Ability to perform under pressure

  • Reliability with responsibilities

  • Decisiveness

  • Evidence of intellectual ability

  • Attitude in class

  • Response to assignments

  • Classroom interaction

  • In-class discussion

  • Written work

  • Communication skills

  • Ability to share ideas

Traits which are not as helpful to emphasize:

  • Nice

  • Likeable

  • Popular

  • Sweet

  • Kind

  • Pleasant

TIP 5: Avoid Common Errors.

  1. • Using the same letter for multiple students. Sure, it saves time, but if you’re running short on time, it’s better to say no to a student than send a letter written for someone else.

  2. • Inconsistency in the application materials. For example, the student’s intended major in the application form should match that on the recommendation letter.

  3. • Writing more than one page. Resist the temptation to exceed one page. The selection committee most likely would only read the first page anyway.

  4. • Not saving a copy. When students ask for additional letters later, it helps to have a saved copy to just print and send.

  5. • Trying to do it all. Never feel guilty about saying no to a student if you simply have too many recommendation letters to write or if you don’t know the student well enough. Or, if you are pressed for time, don’t be afraid to ask the students to provide more information or background to make the writing go more quickly.

TIP 6: Communicate with the Reviewers.

Don’t be afraid to ask college representatives for examples of strong and weak recommendation letters. They’re more than happy to share these with you because they know that this will make the overall quality of letters higher.

Let students help you help them!

You can ask students who request letters of recommendation to complete this template so you will have a better understanding of how to write the letter.

Recommendation Letter Requirements for Students

Dear ______________,

I will do my best to write a strong letter of recommendation for you. You can help me do this, by providing me with the following checked items:

  • Enough preparation time. I will be preparing letters on a “first come, first served” basis. You will have to wait your turn if others have asked for my help before you. To be safe, you should let me know you need a letter from me __________ days before it needs to be mailed out.

  • Completed copy of the Letter Request Form.

  • Complete copy of the application you want my letter to support. This will help me see exactly what you are applying for, and how you are presenting yourself to the selection committee.

  • Copy of your transcript. This can help me describe your best subjects.

  • Resume or completed copy of the Student Background Information Form. This will help me highlight experiences or achievements you’ve had outside of school (at work or as a volunteer, etc).

  • Copy of your personal essay. If you have an essay which describes your future goals, this can help me describe what you are working to achieve.

  • Pre-addressed, stamped envelope. This will help make sure that your letter gets to the right place.

  • Please follow up. It would help me if, _____ days before the deadline, you check in with me again, about your request, so we can be sure I have everything I need from you.

Thank you,


Student Background Information Form

Student name: _________________________________________________________________

Phone number: ________________________________________________________________

Email address: _________________________________________________________________

Please attach a resume or complete below.


Graduation year: ____________________________ GPA: ______________________________

Academic honors or awards: ______________________________________________________


Any special courses you’ve taken over the summer or at another campus?: _________________



Employer: _____________________________ Your job title: ____________________________

Date started and ended: __________________________ Hours per week: _________________

Responsibilities: ________________________________________________________________



Sports you participate in: _________________________________________________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________

Clubs you participate in: _________________________________________________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________

Hobbies or talents: ______________________________________________________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________

Leadership positions (student government, club officer, etc): _____________________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________

Community and/or volunteer experience: ____________________________________________

Date started and ended: ___________________________ Hours per week: ________________

Achievements you are proud of: ___________________________________________________

Recommendation Letter Request Form

Please complete one copy of this form for each recommendation letter you need.

Student name: __________________________________________________________

Phone number: _________________________________________________________

Email address: __________________________________________________________

Recommendation Deadline: _______________________________________________

College or scholarship organization: _________________________________________

Address: _______________________________________________________________

City: ________________________________ State: ___________ Zip: _____________

Website address: ________________________________________________________

Special notes:

Any selection criteria I should know about? (For example, if my letter is meant to support your application for an athletic award, I should write something about your athletic achievements.)

Any specific things about yourself that you’d like me to emphasize? (I will do my best, but I can’t promise that I can include everything you ask for.)

Forms or stationery? The letter should be:

Printed on a form, which is attached.  Printed on school stationery.

Delivery of letter:

 Returned to you in a sealed envelope.  Sent directly to the organization.

 Submitted electronically, at: _________________________

 Other (explain):________________

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